Four Children’s Books that Defined My Relationship with School
Once upon a time, I was The Smart Kid. I have a good memory and, since regurgitation is a huge part of school success, I was good at school. I was also a really big reader, the stereotypical kid who hid a novel behind a textbook. (How did they always know?) When you read a lot, and also can memorize, you end up picking up on a lot of stuff. I have some nice stories of middle school in between the stories of mean girl bullying (mine and other people’s; it was pretty much across the board where I went). One is that a teacher once threw me the keys to his car when I knew the definition of “somnambulist.” He said, “If anyone knows what THIS word means, I’ll give you my car!” We loved his car, because it was a RABBIT. We had very specific requirements for cars to be cool in eighth grade. The only reason I knew the word was because I’d been reading Dean Koontz’s Strangers, which has a somnambulist in it. I remembered the word being in the book, I got the definition right, I got the keys–even though I did have to give them back later. I did, however, just have to use spellcheck for the spelling of somnambulist. I’m smart, not a genius. I have a good memory, not a great one.
But the other kids thought I was a genius, I guess lacking a real one. Well, maybe this one kid, but he was kind of a jerk about it, and I wasn’t. In French class–memorizing!–I got to give makeup tests outside the classroom so the teacher didn’t have to find another time to do it. Sometimes I helped the kids taking the tests, because learning a new language is hard. Once I got past the memorization part, when I had to UNDERSTAND, I quit taking French, in part–and I only realized this years and years later–because my English grammar was so lacking that I had nothing to connect it to with French. I liked helping people. I still do; that’s why I’m a librarian.
When I got to high school, though, there was always this feeling I was letting people down. Not just my mom, although I was certainly doing that, but my classmates. I was learning to use my smarts to skate through classes with a B- or C+ when I could’ve applied myself and gotten As, but 1) I didn’t realize that because I was so used to thinking of using my smarts as being the most potential I could achieve and 2) I liked reading fiction more than I liked learning. I went to a pretty nice school where almost everyone was headed to college, and most of the kids couldn’t understand why I was wasting my time, why I wasn’t in AP and/or Honors, why I didn’t CARE about school. After all, I was so good at it, and naturally too. So why did I scribble my homework down at the last minute, if I did it at all? Why did I rely on tests to get me through? And, the weirdest part, why did I leave the classroom through the window? Why did I argue with the teachers so much?
I think I confused them when I went from bookworm to rebel. They expected me to stay that one way, and instead I was an administrator’s nightmare and most of my classmates couldn’t figure out how and when that had happened. Most of the teachers liked me, but found me “difficult.” I was a know-it-all, and I knew that the system was stupid. Actually, I still think most of the system is stupid, but at least I’ve got some distance now. I suppose that makes me more authoritative.
Part of it was that I had hit puberty. Acting out the storylines in books was far more interesting than Algebra especially since, like most big readers, I thought I must be a disaster at math. (As an adult, I realize that my math skills are average, maybe slightly better than that. I did well in my college math courses, but some of that was my memory–I actually remembered knowing all this stuff, even though I had been out of school for a decade! Go, my brain!) Part of it was that I had a lot in common with my mother, who was a feminist in a time when feminist was a thing you were by default, and something you were because you were passed over for promotion again and watched the under-qualified and incompetent guy get the job instead and you lived the unfairness of it. My mother was big on righting wrongs, and school was full of wrongs. It started when I little and got pneumonia right before winter break, as I would end up getting pneumonia almost every year of my life until high school. I asked to see the nurse, and the substitute teacher said, “You just have cabin fever.” I was five or six. I didn’t know what cabin fever was, but I had an idea from her tone that it was something stupid, like believing in unicorns. When my mother took me to the doctor and–surprise!–I had pneumonia, so she called the school and told them what a jerk the sub had been. I was a few days late back from vacation–also common, since I was sick a lot–and my mother told them my doctor explicitly said that I couldn’t go out for recess. It was too cold and I was too likely to relapse. Sooooo they sent me outside the first day. I told her after school, and she called again. The next day they put me next to the main doors, so every time someone walked in or out for lunch or to drop off something for their kid or to be dropped off after a morning doctor’s appointment, I got the whoosh of cold air. My mother didn’t like that either. On the third day, I was put in a conference room. It was pretty lonely in there.
Then we had more health-related nonsense in my next elementary school. As a kid, my reaction to foods with a lot of sodium was to feel feverish. But I had no sign of a fever, so almost every day, I’d have my plastic Thermos of Lipton soup, and almost every afternoon, I’d feel like I had a fever. Since fevers usually meant pneumonia, bronchitis, or something along those lines, I went to the nurse. She was sure I was faking it. My mother, knowing I was never a faker, finally figured this one out with the help of my doctor. I had to wait until after school to have my soup.
I never really did warm to any school nurse until my daughter reached high school. The less said about my high school nurses, the better, but I will never forget their fake-sympathy after two years of being jerks to me. Ugh. If there was one thing I hated more than a broken system that no one seemed to be willing to fix, it was phonies. (And yet I still hated Holden Caulfield. Go figure.)
There were a lot of other stories I could relate but I think you can sort of see how I got to the point where I didn’t like this system and I wanted it and the people involved in it to change, although I liked the social aspects of school and I did like learning most of the time. I just preferred to learn by picking stuff up from fiction. In books, as in life, teachers could be awesome or suspect, so my favorite books where school plays a big part aren’t the ones where a teacher helps a down-and-out class reach their potential, or someone puts on an amazing school play, or other positive things (although I read and enjoyed those too especially, for a while, novelizations of “teacher” movies I wouldn’t see for years, like Stand & Deliver and Dead Poets’ Society). My favorites were the ones where teachers can be unfair, administrators are the enemy, and sometimes things just don’t make any sense.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar is an exercise in surrealism. The school is built up instead of out, there’s a missing floor, and I think one of the students is actually a dead fish. But the book captures that out-of-control, we-run-the-madhouse feel of children trapped in a system they can’t understand, because the system makes no sense.
Wow, as an adult, I’m seeing a lot in this book I never have before.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle pits heroine Meg against the administrator Mr. Jenkins, a dandruffy, unhappy man who didn’t understand Meg and didn’t want to try. Later, I would acquire a copy of The Wind in the Door, where Mr. Jenkins plays a larger role, gets to know the children, and Meg must learn to love him for his faults, and I felt cheated. But it was probably the right thing to write. Mr. Jenkins gets to be a person too.
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger gave us the wonderful Ms. Finney, and the awful parents and administrators who don’t like her unorthodox teaching methods, despite how well they work. This book broke my heart, both for Ms. Finney’s story and the main character, Marcie, dealing with her weight and her unhappy home life.
Finally, there’s Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt. The second Dicey book in the Tillerman Cycle, this one features an unusual kid trying to navigate a normal life and failing miserably. She’s accused by one teacher of plagiarizing and fails an assignment from a home ec teacher even though her answers about living within a budget are correct–she knows because she fed her siblings after her mother abandoned them. But Dicey’s pride gets in the way of her being able to articulate the unfairness of these situations. At least in the first one, we have Dicey’s friend Mina to speak for her, in a wonderful scene that made me want to literally stand up and cheer. It still does. My inner child still rails at school and teacher unfairness, it seems.
Later, I would add Annie on My Mind to this list, a YA book by Nancy Garden about a lesbian struggling with a conservative administration, and of course there’s that scene in Anne of Green Gables where her teacher refuses to spell her name with an E! Oh, and the Evil Principal from the Losing Christina series! It’s so funny that I almost always read about teachers being the bad guys, and yet until I was in high school, I wanted to be a teacher myself. I guess I liked the challenge.